Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Time to Use the ‘I’ Word

When  NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove said on Wednesday that the alliance has for the past two days observed large columns of Russian military vehicles crossing the border from Russia into Ukraine, he picked his words carefully.
Read more on UNIAN:

“We saw columns of Russian military equipment, primarily Russian tanks, artillery, Russian air defense systems and combat troops, entering into Ukraine," Breedlove told Agence France Presse at the sidelines of a security conference in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Breedlove is a military man, a fine general, who with his comments in the past has shown that he is fully aware of what is going on in eastern Ukraine. But he is also a politician of sorts – you don’t get to his position without being politically savvy. So he was careful not to use the word “invasion.”
In fact, Western politicians, particularly in the United States, have over the past few months been studiously avoiding letting this word slip their lips when commenting on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
“Incursion” was a favorite substitute.
But now it’s time to call things what they really are. Russia used soldiers in unmarked uniforms and unmarked military vehicles in Ukraine in March, when it invaded and then annexed Crimea. Over the past few days even the observers of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe - whose apparently inability to spot Russian T-72B tanks roaring along the roads of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions has become something of a grim joke in Kyiv over the past few months – even they have reported large columns of unmarked military vehicles moving into the areas of Ukraine seized by Russian-backed militants.
It should be quite clear now to all in the West what is going on – it’s an invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The West, by failing to take a firmer stand against Russian aggression at the start of the Ukrainian crisis in March, has encouraged the aggressor, the bully Russia, to continue its attacks, which now threaten the very existence of the Ukrainian state as we have known it since 1991.
This is not, of course, the conventional type of invasion we’re all familiar with from the history books – a vast army sweeping into territory with overwhelming force, but rather a slow, steady, careful, stealthy takeover of another European state by an aggressive neighbor, using new tactics that combine covert military operations with brazen information manipulation, and a torturing of the meanings of words that would make Orwell shudder.
It should also be clear by now what Russia’s ultimate aims are, even though the West has not been sure how, when or even if, Russian President Vladimir Putin would go about achieving them. Having seized Crimea, Russia desperately needs a land corridor from Mother Russia to support the peninsula, and that corridor can only be the southern and eastern portion of Ukraine. The Russians even went as far as to invent another country, "Novorossiya” to justify their land grab.
Another probable aim of Russia is to dismember Ukraine, absorbing one half, and turning the rest into a supine client. By eliminating a politically independent Ukraine, the Kremlin is also less threatened by rebellious Ukrainians exporting their popular revolution to Russia, threatening its grip on power.
Even if it were the case that the West was not concerned for the fate of Ukraine, and were willing to see it torn in two for the sake of appeasing the Russian bear, it would still only be fair to Ukrainians for the West to acknowledge that “invasion” is the best-fitting word to describe what the country is being subjected to now.
It’s time for the West to use the “i” word.
Read more on UNIAN:

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Birth(day) of a Dictator

Everyone in the country was happy on the day of the Great Leader’s birthday - it had even been suggested that the day be made a national holiday. Songs were composed for him, art featuring him was exhibited (though some intellectuals quietly sniffed at its vulgarity), masses of kitsch souvenirs depicting him were sold, and a huge parade was staged for him. There was no doubt that he was genuinely popular among the people, and state propaganda merely had to amplify their adulation to a crescendo. However, due to his military aggression against neighboring states, he was not now well liked abroad, and no major foreign dignitaries came (or were invited) to attend any events in celebration of his birthday.

Although the above paragraph describes the events of April 20, 1939 – the 50th birthday of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler - it is also, depressingly and worryingly, an exact fit for the events of October 7, 2014 – the 62nd birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many lines have been written in recent months about the parallels between the regimes of Hitler and the Russian leader, but the resemblances bear repeating.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014 can be compared to the annexation, or Anschluss, of Austria by the Third Reich in March 1938. Both involved near-bloodless military takeovers of a neighboring territory, capped by referendums that produced incredibly high votes in favor of the move.  There are also similarities between Germany’s occupation of the Sudetenland and the creation by Russia of a frozen conflict in border areas of Ukraine – in September of 1938 and in September of 2014 the leaders of the countries that had been threatened by their aggressive neighbors were pressured by the Western powers to reach agreements with their enemies, which by October 1938 and October 2014 had resulted in the effective loss of control of part of their countries’ territories. In both cases, the argument put forward by the aggressor was that since certain citizens of these territories spoke the same language as the aggressor nation, the aggressor had a right to “defend these citizens’ interests.”

For Hitler’s defiant march into the Rhineland and annexation of Austria, we have the Putin’s carving up of Georgia and annexation of Crimea. In both cases, there was a weak response from the democratic counties to the aggressor nations. In the case of Hitler, the weakness and appeasement of the West encouraged more aggression, which ultimately led to the bloodiest war in history. What will be the case with Putin? The signs do not look good.

Donetsk Airport, a key military objective of the militants, has been under attack by them practically every day since the “ceasefire” was supposed to come into force on September 5. The militants have made only token efforts, in a few less militarily important areas of the front, to pull back their artillery by the 15 kilometers demanded by the Minsk agreement. In other areas they have instead moved forward and taken new ground. They have expended copious quantities of ammunition, men and resources on their attacks on Ukrainian forces at Donetsk Airport and other hot spots. It can reasonably be assumed that bullets, shells, grenades, antitank guns, artillery pieces, APCs and T-72 tanks do not grow on trees in the Donbas – the militants are obviously being supplied from across Ukraine’s border with Russia, which is still open. It is inconceivable that the Russian government has also lost control of its side of the border, so the resupplying of the militants can only be being achieved with Moscow’s approval and continuous support. Yet there is no outcry about this from the West, no call for the new round of fierce, stinging sanctions that these actions of the Kremlin have surely earned for Russia. Instead, there is talk in Washington of easing the present, flaccid sanctions, if Putin will but observe the clauses of the Minsk Agreement - even though he has conspicuously failed to do so thus far. The issue of Crimea is now all but forgotten.

Meanwhile, in Russia, as in Germany in the late thirties, the leader is building up his armies, trying to recapture the military might and glory of former times. Nationalist passions are being stoked in the population, and the Kremlin’s own, self-imposed sanctions are engendering a siege mentality in Russian society. Enemies from inside and outside the state are being created – national traitors and Ukrainian “fascists.” Religious bigotries dressed up as “conservative values” are encouraged, as is the myth of Russian cultural exceptionalism. Where Hitler had the Jews as his principal enemies, Putin has “Eurogays” and other degenerate Westerners with their depraved lifestyles (although Jews are also commonly thought by Russia’s credulous public to be the ones behind Western imperialistic conspiracies intended to undermine Mother Russia.) A continuous stream of hatred and lies blares from the monophonic loudspeakers of the Russian state propaganda media, which produce no themes or variations other than those arranged by the Kremlin. The raucous, brash, gaudy, crass current events in Russia sound and look horribly familiar.

It looks like a dictatorship is being born. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A New Kind Of War

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about the different approaches taken by the Americans and the Russians to a simple problem. At the height of the Cold War, during the space race, the Americans were having problems using their pens for checklists in zero-G spaceflights – the ink wasn’t flowing correctly to the nib. A committee at NASA was formed, a design for a new type of pen agreed, a project started, a contractor to produce the pen selected, and millions of dollars spent all along the way.

The Russians decided to use pencils.

This straightforward difference in mentality and approach has now been extended by the Russians to their techniques of warfare. While the United States has spent trillions developing the best tanks, aircraft, smart bombs, missiles, ships and submarines, Russia, with some cunning and relatively cheap tactical tweaks, has all but rendered the West’s advantage in conventional warfare redundant, as its annexation of Crimea and land grab in eastern Ukraine has demonstrated. It must be admitted that the West, and more specifically and worryingly NATO, has been found to be impotent in the face of Russian military aggression.

None of the four components of the new Russian style of war, dubbed Hybrid Warfare, are innovations in themselves. These components - the military, the political, the economic, and the informational - have long been present in the field of conflict. What is new is the way in which the Russians have seamlessly blended them into a tactical doctrine that guides their actions. They have also enhanced the informational component in ways that could not even have been conceived before the advent of the Internet.

The political component is the one we are most familiar with from the Cold War. Stony faces at the Security Council. Political pressure being exerted on allies and foes. Both sides are long practiced in the arts of superpower diplomacy, and neither has any particular advantage in this area. Observers of UN meetings have already noted the return of a chilly Cold War atmosphere at UN headquarters since the Ukrainian crisis erupted. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, a lot of the governments of the West, wrongly assuming that the threat from Russia was history, let their Russian desks get dusty, and neglected the science of Kremlinology. As a result, the West has realized with a jolt that it cannot fathom what Vladimir Putin is up to. We don’t understand the Russians anymore. We stopped thinking of them as enemies, but it seems they never did so of us.

The long shadow of the bomb hangs over the military component. No side will risk all-out war for fear of any conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange. The West, as noted, retains its advantage in conventional weapons and technology. But Russia has used subterfuge, and covert operations by special forces, to achieve a spectacular military success in the virtually bloodless takeover of a prized chunk of Ukrainian territory – Crimea. By escalating its confrontation with the West step by step, the Kremlin never puts its foes in a position in which a conventional military response would be feasible or appropriate. The Russians have also demonstrated the ability to use a wide range of tactics, and adapt them to the situation as it evolves. We probably won’t see the Little Green Men of Crimea again – they would probably be shot on sight if they turned up, for example, in eastern Estonia (or at least one hopes so), but Russia no doubt has many other tricks up its sleeve. The use of a massive “aid convoy” to provide a logistical support resource for the Russian military in eastern Ukraine was another such trick. There was impotent outrage when the first convoy barged into Ukraine on August 22, in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but sanctions threats and dire warnings by the United States that it would see the convoy’s unauthorized crossing into Ukraine as an “invasion” proved to be nothing but hot air and bluster. Now Russia is readying a fourth convoy. We’ve got to the point that Russia can send hundreds of trucks into Ukraine, unchecked, unsupervised, carrying only the Russians know what, without a whimper of complaint from the West.

Then there is the economic component. Russia has actually been using economic warfare on Ukraine for a number of years, but now the NATO countries of the European Union are in the Kremlin's sights, and are at a clear disadvantage. The EU imports around 30% of its natural gas from Russia (half of that coming through the Ukrainian gas transit system.) Germany and Italy consume about half of these Russian gas exports. The implications of Russia’s controlling the supply of such an amount of the raw energy supplies of large Western democracies are obvious, and will not be dwelt upon here. The economic sanctions threatened and imposed by the EU and the United States in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine have so far had no effect in influencing Russia’s actions. Indeed, the issue of the annexation of Crimea, which saw Russia wreck the post-war international order in a matter of days, now seems to have slipped off the agenda completely. Now that Russia appears to have succeeded in setting up a frozen conflict in the east of Ukraine, and the fighting appears to be winding down, at least slightly, the EU is even considering reviewing its package of sanctions against Russia! It appears that Russia correctly guessed that the EU was too weak, divided, and self-interested to impose and maintain for the time required the kind of economic sanctions that would make the Kremlin back down. Meanwhile, Russia has imposed sanctions on the EU that have a direct impact on Russia’s own population – restrictions on imports of EU goods and foods. The message is clear: “We can take the pain of your sanctions, and we don’t mind hurting our own population – we’ll just tell them it’s all the West’s fault, that they’re our enemies, and they’ll rally around us.” The West’s sanctions could work, but they’d have to be a lot tougher, long-lasting and also be of the kind that would also inflict damage to Western countries’ own economies. The West has no stomach for such sanctions, and Russia knows it.

Lastly, the informational component: Here Russia has been at its most deviously brilliant. By using its tight control over the Russian media, the Kremlin has been able to shape the narrative underlying the whole Ukraine crisis by creating an interlocking series of myths that not only win the hearts and minds of the Russian public, but also appeal to left- (and right-) leaning elements in the West and elsewhere around the world who have a visceral dislike of the United States and its foreign policy. The main myths are that it was the EU and the West that started the Ukraine crisis (while it was actually a popular revolution sparked by Russia’s own meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs); that Kyiv was taken over by a fascist junta; that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine were under some sort of threat and required protection; and that the fighting in Ukraine is a purely internal conflict (although it was actually fomented by Russia). Russian officials and journalists are prepared to utter, without a blush, the most blatant lies in order to support these myths, in a way that simply flummoxes the Western media (who are also baffled over how to report the obvious but infuriatingly difficult to prove involvement of Russian troops, tanks and artillery in the fighting in the east of Ukraine.)
The information component also includes the innovative use of hacking (Estonia has suffered Russian attacks on its modern e-government, and there is circumstantial evidence that Russia may have tried to interfere in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election by infiltrating the central election commission’s servers.) Moreover, as Western newspapers like the UK Guardian have found, Russia is able to call on an army of Internet trolls to disrupt, confuse, and mold public discourse in the West in matters pertaining to Ukraine, spreading misinformation in support of Russia’s myth narrative. We can be quite sure that Russia has even more capabilities to attack the West via the Internet, such as clogging up the banking system, attacking utilities operating systems, and stealing valuable data. It is not known yet whether the West has any way of countering such attacks, or responding in kind. But the Russians are clearly taking no chances: President Putin recently held a meeting on ways to cut the Russian part of the Internet off from the rest of the Web.

All of these components have been used together, in an integrated fashion, to support one another. As special ops forces moved in to seize buildings in eastern Ukraine, Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies to the country (which it did in May), its diplomats in the UN lied shamelessly about Russia’s involvement in the conflict, and Russian media and Internet trolls howled and snorted if it was suggested that Russia might be behind the so-called rebellion in the Donbas, all the while spreading misinformation about Ukraine and the Ukrainian government to the Russian and Western public alike.

This is a new kind of war. It is aggressive and offensive (in both the main meanings of the word). New methods will have to be devised to defend against it, or the Russian advance into territories it once ruled in an empire will not stop in eastern Ukraine.

Monday, 8 September 2014

How Russia Defeated Western Journalism

Do you think that the government in Ukraine was overthrown in a violent, Western-backed putsch, and the new government in Kyiv is dominated by far-right radicals? Do you suspect that the downing of MH17 was orchestrated by a Kyiv "junta" to garner support for military intervention in Ukraine by the West? Do You think that there has been no armed intervention by the Kremlin in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with tanks and mercenaries and regular units of the Russian army, and that the war is a purely domestic Ukrainian affair? Do you think that the volunteer battalions fighting on the behalf of the Kyiv government are, to a man, neo-Nazi fascists, hell-bent on subjugating the people of eastern Ukraine, and forcing them to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian?

Then you've been hoodwinked by Kremlin propaganda.

Don't feel too ashamed though: you've been misled by the most sophisticated propaganda machine that the world has ever seen - one that attacks, undermines and emasculates a key source of information that you may rely on: the Western media. As a small part of that media, I'm partly to blame for your being misled, so I owe it to you to explain as best I can how this happened.

The Kremlin propagandists have achieved this propaganda coup in three ways:

1. Undermining the credibility of Western journalism, or the journalism practiced in democracies. In Russia, and other autocratic regimes, the media serve the purposes of the state. There is no conception of the media as a "Fourth Estate" that is in effect as separate and equal part of government, performing an overseeing role that protects democracy. Why should the media perform such a role when there is no democracy to protect? Instead, in authoritarian states, the media are an arm of government, a propganda appendage, who pass only the government-approved message. By extension, it is assumed, wrongly, by the people who live under autocratic regimes, that the Western media serve exactly the same role. The reporting of Western journalists is thus undermined, with journalists being equated to agents of their governments, and thought of as nothing better than propagandists or spies. This wooly thinking even infects the well-meaning but naive liberal left in the West, who (rightly) distrust their own governments, but (wrongly) won't believe their own media. Meanwhile, the "journalists" of an authoritarian state like Russia can be found in places like Ukraine advancing the goals of their state through their "reporting."

2.  Understanding and expoliting the "Golden Rules" of journalism. The Kremlin propagandists know very well that Western journalists value their integrity, and that none of them wants to compromise it. None of them wants to make an error that will dent their reputation, and thus their career. The Kremlin propagandists know that Western journalists are risk-averse when it comes to reporting - they know that while each one of them is desperate to get the story FIRST, it must also be CORRECT. Mistakes will haunt you long after the story has broken and the brief glory of the breaking story has faded. This risk-aversion can be expolited by simply tearing off the shoulder patch of a Russian soldier. Western journalists can no longer report "Russian soldiers are in the process of annexing Crimea." They can't identify the soldiers for sure - they can't risk being wrong, even though it's completely obvious, even to themselves, who these soldiers are. Ditto unmarked Russian T-72 tanks in Ukraine. They can't report what they know personally to be the truth.

3. Setting up "alternative media" that pretend to be paragons of Western media values. The Russian Kremlin propaganda channel RT (formerly Russia Today) has been set up to promote the Russian government's propaganda in a way soothingly familiar to a Western audience. It employs young, pretty, cash-hungry journalists from Western countries, who are almost entirely lacking in a sense of journalistic ethics, to mouth the word of the Kremlin in a way that sounds acceptable to a Western audience. When presented with a channel like RT, a Westerner might assume that this is a bona fide news organization, that follows the rules of Western journalism, when in fact it is a propaganda machine that will not hesitate to promulgate the most absurd and outrageous lies in the interests of its masters, and will only retract them, in an insincere face-saving exercise, if it steps so far beyond the bounds of the credible that it cannot even convince its own fact-challenged staff that it was reporting accurately.

Absurd though it seems, these are the reasons I cannot tell you on the radio tonight some things that I know personally to be true: There never was a rebellion in Ukraine: it was fomented by Russian intelligence operatives - most people in eastern Ukraine never supported the separatists. The reason the Ukrainian army has suffered reverses in the last two weeks is because Russia sent in massive quantities of men and materiel to stop the "rebels" from losing. MH17 was almost certainly shot down by a BUK anti-aircraft missile, operated by Russians. And the "ceasefire" is almost certainly a ruse to wrong foot the West and the Ukrainian government into lowering its guard ahead of further Russian intervention in Ukraine, and then further afield.

I can't tell you all that because the Kremlin propagandists will assault my every claim with obfuscation, confusion and denial, and their account will be broadcast in the Western media, who "seek the other side of the story," and give it equal airtime, as if this other side of the story is not the outright lies and propaganda that it actually is.

That is why Russian propaganda has defeated Western journalism. Now: what are we going to do about it?

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Return of the Little Green Men

One of the problems of Western journalism, which Russia uses to its great advantage, is its apparent inability to identify a spade as a spade unless it is witnessed by three independent sources.

Even after the capture of 10 Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil on Monday, the BBC on Wednesday night, in its flagship World Service Newshour program, was referring to the troops who crossed the Russian border and took control of the town of Novoazovsk on Wednesday as "pro-Russian rebels."

Even if they were "rebels", the reports failed to note that this well-armed force would have had to cross Russian territory, with the connivance of the Russian authorities, to have opened up a new front outside of the small, and until recently shrinking, patch of ground that the anti-Ukrainian fighters previously held. It is implausible to conclude that Russia did not support this escalation of the conflict. So why was this not reported?

Well, in Crimea, as Russia discovered (or actually understood quite well beforehand), the Western press was loath to draw conclusions from second-hand and circumstantial evidence, probably for fear of making an error. President Vladimir Putin and his generals used this fact to effect a brazen takeover of the territory of another state. They have used the same tactics of subterfuge and covert action to foment a "rebellion" in the east of Ukraine. And they are using it again now to spread the war in Ukraine.

We saw this excessive journalistic caution again on August 17, when journalists from the UK newspapers the Guardian and the Telegraph, Shaun Walker and Roland Oliphant, witnessed a column of Russian APCs furtively violating the Ukrainian border at dusk. Even then, they could not conclude the obvious – that that these were Russian reinforcements off to prop up the teetering "rebel" defense in Luhansk and Donetsk – not having seen this for themselves.

Why is this such a problem? Remember the MH17 atrocity, when there was also a great deal of circumstantial evidence, but no direct eyewitness reports, that the anti-Ukrainian forces shot down a civil airliner? There was nevertheless a huge public outcry at this awful news of the horrible deaths of nearly 300 people, including 80 children, and this outcry undoubtedly caused the Western governments whose citizens had been killed to take a firmer stand against Russia, introducing stricter sanctions. Western governments, being democracies, have to have an eye on public opinion, as their positions depend on it. Public opinion, in turn, is molded by the media. The media thus have a great responsibility to provide correct information to the public, as this will indirectly have an effect on government policies in a democracy.

But the BBC, in continuing to refer to the troops who invaded Novoazovks as "pro-Russian rebels" is not providing correct information to the public in the UK, (and given the wide reach of the World Service, the public in many other countries), about the true state of affairs in Ukraine. The troops who invaded Novoazovk are Russian regular soldiers, and there is a great deal of evidence that this is so.

First, the troops, according to several eyewitness reports, are dressed in unmarked Russian-issue military uniforms. They carry Russian-issue weapons. They are masked and wearing goggles, as in Crimea. They refuse to speak to reporters (for fear of people hearing their "Russian" Russian accents). They are supplied with Russian military field rations – which they swap with the locals for more palatable fare.

Next, these troops are equipped with T-72B tanks with reactive armor – these tanks are not in the Ukrainian arsenal: they could not have been stolen from Ukrainian arms depots, they could only have come directly from the Russian military.

Moreover, some of these troops have already been captured, and videos of their interrogations are available on YouTube. The BBC employs several native speakers of Russian as journalists. It is quite possible for them to identify these men as Russian by their speech. Even Russia has admitted that they are Russian troops, but claimed they strayed a dozen miles into Ukraine "by accident." But is it really plausible that some of Russia's finest troops are incapable of reading a map correctly? Why is the media not asking such questions on behalf of the public?

Instead, we simply get interviews with Russian officials – proven liars –
presented as "the other side of the story" as if what they had to say had the slightest credibility after what happened in Crimea.

There is no doubt that the Little Green Men are back, and have now invaded mainland Ukraine. As before, the Western governments will probably try to ignore this, for fear of getting involved in "a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing," to quote the wretched appeaser Neville Chamberlain.

It is the duty of the media not to allow them to do this, to correctly report the real situation in Ukraine to the Western public, so that the public will in turn bring pressure to bear on their governments to make the correct response. The West's cautious approach to Putin has failed. It failed to stop him after his annexation of Crimea, and its continued use as a policy will fail to stop the destruction of the current Ukrainian state, which is most probably one of Putin's aims. The West's calls for Russia to "de-escalate or else" have proved useless, because Putin has continued to escalate and the West has never come up with a meaningful "else." Putin will escalate and escalate. He will not stop until he achieves his aims or is actively prevented from doing so.

It's time for the media to call the situation what it is – a direct invasion of Ukraine by Russia – and for the West to take action to stop Putin.

Otherwise, Western journalists could soon be reporting the arrival of the Little Green Men in Moldova, or Estonia, or Latvia, or Lithuania.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Russia's 'aid convoy' trucks: Trojan Horses, or Trojan Mules?

Courtney Weaver of the Financial Times, who has been traveling with the Russian "aid convoy," has been taking a look inside the Russian trucks said to be carrying aid to the Donbas. Unsurprisingly, many of the ones she looked at were mostly empty. See her pictures at

Why unsurprisingly? Because the amount of aid Russia said it was sending (about 2,000 tonnes) did not tally with the amount of tonnage the nearly 300 trucks of the convoy were capable of hauling. Even accounting for backup trucks in case of breakdowns, less than 100 trucks would have been needed to carry the declared tonnage (at 25 tonnes per truck, only 80 trucks required.)

Russian convoy drivers told Weaver the trucks were lightly loaded in case there were breakdowns, and loads had to be repacked from a broken down vehicle into another one in the convoy, but as far as we know all the trucks made it from Moscow to Rostov region without problems, so this seems excessive and unlikely. For comparison, Ukraine's aid convoy of 75 trucks carried to the Donbas 800 tonnes (just over 10.6 tonnes per truck), in a convoy of much lighter trucks than the heavy 10-wheeler Kamaz trucks sent by the Russians.

Why then, do the Russians need all that extra space?

As far as I can see, there are two most likely reasons for Russia sending this amount of trucks to the Donbas area – an optimistic one, and a pessimistic one.

The optimistic one is that the Russians intend to carry out of the Donbas a great deal more than they hope to bring in – a load of weapons, supplies and fighters - in a covert withdrawal of Russia's proxy army from Ukraine. This would be a face-saving withdrawal for the Kremlin, allowing the Russians to claim that their troops were never in eastern Ukraine, and the war was a purely Ukrainian internal conflict. Russia, in that case, would not have suffered a military defeat at the hands of Ukraine.

The pessimistic one is that Russia is deploying a large supply facility to the war region, which will be used to support a large-scale military intervention in eastern Ukraine, perhaps as part of its long-feared "peacekeeping" intervention, or even an all-out open invasion of the east and south of Ukraine. The deceptive nature of the deployment of such a logistics vehicle group would fit in well with the new Russian military tactics of Hybrid War, which seamlessly blends the use of stealth, deception and disinformation when preparing for and implementing an attack on another country. Further support for this scenario is the fact that the Russians are still sending armor into Ukraine to support their proxy army in Luhansk and Donetsk – as eye-witnessed by the Western media for the first time on the evening of August 14. It does not appear that the Russians are scaling down their military operation in eastern Ukraine – rather the opposite seems to be the case.

The Russian military's Hybrid War tactics are at least as revolutionary as the Wehrmacht's Blitzkrieg from the Second World War, but thankfully each time such tactics are employed they become less effective, as ways are thought up to counter them. (Germany's Blitzkrieg only really worked properly once, during the Fall of France in 1940.) We are all now on the look out for Little Green Men, and hopefully becoming more immune to the Kremlin's lies.

Nevertheless, we should still be wary: the fact that the Russian "aid convoy" presents us with puzzles could well be an indicator that it is indeed a Trojan Horse - not all that it seems – although it might be more accurately described as a Trojan packhorse. Ukraine should be very leery of allowing such a potentially dangerous dual-use "aid" convoy onto its territory.

Better to be on the safe side, and keep it out.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Timeo Danos et dona ferentes

"I fear the Greeks, even those bearing gifts." So said the Trojan priest Laocoön, when he saw the great wooden horse built before the gates of the besieged city of Troy by the armies of Agamemnon, as related by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid.

Quite why the Trojans, starving after the ten-year siege of their city by the Greeks, should have been so enamored of a large wooden horse as to raise it onto wheels and draw it through their city's gates is not explained in Virgil's Aeneid or Homer's Iliad, but there are some prosaic theories.

One of the more interesting ones is that the horse had not been constructed merely of wood, but was a wooden frame to which had been attached great quantities of provisions - amphoras of wine, baskets of fruit, loaves of bread, joints of meat and so forth. The Trojans, starving as they were, could not resist this supposed gift of the Greeks, and despite the warnings of Laocoön, they dragged the horse into their city and began to feast joyously on the food and wine that had been nailed to the Greek offering.

But within this food hoard a single Greek soldier had been hidden, whose task was to unbar the gates of Troy once the Trojan feast was over and their guards had fallen into a drunken stupor. This he did; the Greeks streamed into Troy, razed it to the ground, and the rest, as they say, is history.

According to the above theory, the Greeks brought war to Troy, and then destroyed their enemies with a feigned  humanitarian gesture. The parallels with today's offers of humanitarian aid from the Kremlin for the besieged Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics" are so obvious that already Trojan Horse memes are galloping across the Ukrainian part of the Internet. The Russians have been calling for humanitarian intervention - brought, of course, by Russian peacekeeping forces - since their proxy army in Donetsk and Luhansk began to be forced back from the territories they had occupied since mid April.

To allow the Russians to make such a "humanitarian gesture" in the Donbas would be a folly on a par with that committed by the people of Troy.

There was no such entity as Russia when Virgil penned his famous phrase about the Greeks, so I can't give a Latin paraphrase of his words with regard to the Russians. But my English version carries across both the meaning, and a warning that the Ukrainian government should heed when Russia proposes sending a humanitarian convoy into eastern Ukraine: "I fear the Russians, even when they bear gifts."

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Mr. Putin and the News Cycle

The gaze of the Western media is brief, but intense. When the latest international crisis erupts, it is subjected to detailed scrutiny - for a while. Then another big story breaks, in another far-off location, and the searchlight of media news cycle attention sweeps off to that place. Meanwhile, former trouble spots recede into the shadows.

This is difficult to appreciate when you're actually located in one of these trouble spots, like Ukraine, and the local news is filled with the news of the crisis all the time. Only when you leave the country does the short attention span of the Western media become starkly apparent. Abroad, you strain to hear the latest news from the east, and every international news broadcast is a disappointment.

This is understandable, as there are lots of trouble spots in the world, and lots of disasters, crises and catastrophes for the roving eye of the media to focus on - we can't expect the world to have a unique concern for the particular problems that concern us the most.

But this is something Russian President Vladimir Putin also seems to understand well. If the spotlight of international media attention falls on his doings in Ukraine, he freezes like a fox caught in headlights. Once the light moves on, he slinks off again in the darkness to continue to pursue his objectives.

We saw this after the annexation of Crimea in March: once the echoes of the outcry against that blatant abrogation of the international order had died away, Putin in April started to work on the destabilization of eastern and southern Ukraine. When the drama of the Ukrainian presidential elections in May put Ukraine back in the spotlight of international media attention, Mr. Putin appeared to draw back from the brink of invasion with his "peace keepers" - who are, by all accounts available on Russian Facebook clone Vkontakte, hell-bent on restoring "order" to eastern Ukraine.

But by June the news cycle had moved on, Ukraine faded from view, and Putin began to implement the next stage of his "Novorossiya" project - to neutralize the Ukrainian forces' airpower advantage by supplying his proxy army in the east with sophisticated means to bring down Ukrainian warplanes - namely the BUK-M "Gadfly" surface-to-air missile system. He also pushed fresh troops and armor into the combat zone to counter the Ukrainian army's successes on the ground.

But a tragic consequence of Putin's pernicious plans - the downing by the insurgents, apparently in error, of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 - again brought the keen attention of the international media down on eastern Ukraine in mid to late July, and Putin was again forced to freeze, and adopt the aspect of the reasonable man of peace. Kremlin rhetoric was softened - Kyiv's government was no longer referred to as "the junta" and calls for a ceasefire came every day from Moscow.

But now it is August, Ukraine has slipped down the order on the news bulletins, and Putin is again moving forward with his schemes. His troops are being reinforced on the eastern border, trainloads of armor have been sent into Belarus to menace Ukraine's northern frontier. There are reports that Russian fighting machines bearing Russia's "MC" peacekeepers symbol are gathering near Ukraine's border. Putin's proxy army in eastern Ukraine is all but beaten, its two main strongholds, Donetsk and Luhansk, are cut off from each other and surrounded, and if no help comes from Russia, they will be forced to surrender. Yet Ukraine's military success ironically brings fresh danger to the country, and Putin appears to be positioning himself for his next move - open military intervention.

As Ukraine again drops out of the international news cycle, what will September bring? The Western media excel at bringing us news of events after the fact. When Ukraine again hits the headlines, I'm very much afraid it will be because Russian troops are streaming across the border to occupy Luhansk and Donetsk.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Putin’s Next Move

Ukraine has been thrust into the center of world media attention by the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. This atrocity may have finally forced the international community to take the threat of Russia’s actions in the east of Ukraine seriously. Predictably, after the incident, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, pumping out incredible nonsense such as Ukraine’s government ordering the shooting down of the aircraft in the mistaken belief that it was the Russian presidential plane carrying Russian President Vladimir Putin back to Moscow from Brazil. This and other equally bizarre conspiracy theories have since been lapped up by pro-Russian useful idiots and regurgitated all over the Internet. So the first thing to do, in speculating about what the Russian leader's next move might be, is to return to the real world and review what we know with reasonable certainty.

MH17 was shot down by a powerful ground-to-air missile system, and the aircraft broke up in the air, as we know from the large debris field of four to six square miles (at least). The only other likely cause of such destruction would have been a bomb on the aircraft, and there is no indication that there was one. In contrast, there is every indication that it was indeed a missile that shot down the plane – this was the early view of the Ukrainian authorities, who identified the weapon as a Buk-M or “Gadfly” anti-aircraft missile system, which was later corroborated by U.S. intelligence sources, who identified the trajectory and impact point of the missile using satellite date.

The Russian-led insurgents certainly had a Buk-M missile system (there are recent photos and videos of such systems in insurgent-held territory, and phone intercepts of insurgents discussing its deployment with their Russian handlers.) The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) also released damning phone intercepts of the insurgents reporting to their Russian superiors, in shock, that they had mistakenly shot down a civilian airliner. The SBU later released video it said showed the Buk-M system, on a trailer and minus one missile, being towed out of the area in the direction of Russia in the early hours of July 18, the morning after the shooting down of MH17.

It is also a fact that the Russian-led insurgents have been shooting down aircraft regularly – they may also have used the Buk-M system to down a Ukrainian air force An-26 transport aircraft a few days before the MH17 atrocity. From the initial reports by the insurgents, it is clear that they believed they had shot down another An-26 – the Russian insurgent commander Igor Girkin bragged about it in a blog post soon after the attack - the post was removed when it became clear that a civilian airliner had in fact been downed. The insurgents also removed a picture of a Buk-M tweeted a few days earlier from Twitter.

Thus, from the best evidence we have so far, it seems MH17 was shot down by a Buk-M system, probably supplied by Russia (the Ukrainians insist they had full account of all their missiles, and any systems captured by the insurgents were unusable, their warheads having been disabled in March.) There is mounting evidence that Russia is directly involved in supporting the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and is ultimately responsible for the shooting down of MH17.

Given all that, what is Putin’s next move likely to be? Here are some possible options:

1) End all support for insurgency, pull Russian mercenaries, weapons, tanks, artillery, rocket systems out of Ukraine, and prevent any flow of more mercenaries and supplies into eastern Ukraine.

Effect: Without continual resupply and reinforcement from Russia, the insurgents will be unable to resist the Ukrainian military, and the insurgency will start to collapse. The insurgents will put up a desperate fight in their last strongholds, and civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure are unfortunately inevitable before they are defeated. Ukraine will, however, eventually regain control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk, including the border region, and further Russian attempts to destabilize the area will be much harder to implement.

Why he’d do it: This would immediately take Western pressure of Putin, and he’d be able to cast himself in the role of peacemaker, with the chance of rehabilitating his image internationally, and warding off the threat of further sanctions that actually hurt Russia’s economy.

Why he wouldn’t:  It would be seen in Russia as a serious defeat for Putin – a humiliation, and Putin does not like to be humiliated. Also, everything Putin has done so far indicates he does not much care about his international image – he’s much more concerned about his domestic image, and he wants to look strong and resolute, not weak, humiliated and defeated. In addition, ending the east Ukraine escapade might let Crimea slip back onto the agenda, and Putin himself might face more emboldened opposition in Russia itself.

2) Ignore all Western pressure and threats of sanctions, and go for an all-out invasion of eastern Ukraine, carrying out some false-flag operations as an excuse to send in first a large peacekeeping force, and then later push in regular troops to take over an area encompassing at least, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa oblasts, and possibly Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk oblasts as well.

Effect: The modern state of Ukraine would cease to exist – it would consist only of a landlocked rump state of western and central Ukraine, severely weakened, and no longer a “threat” to Russia. (Indeed, after a period Russia might start to meddle with the affairs of the remaining independent part of Ukraine.) Russia would gain control of one or more likely two vassal statelets (the Donbas Republic of Luhansk and Donetsk – and maybe Kharkiv – oblasts, and the state of Novorossiya, consisting of Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa oblasts, and possibly Dnipropetrovsk oblast as well.

Why he’d do it: This would be a spectacular win for Putin, ticking some great big strategic and domestic policy boxes. Russia would effectively expand its borders to the Dniester River in the west, and would gain a vital land border with Crimea. A new scale would have to be devised to measure Putin’s public popularity at home, the West would suffer a humiliating defeat that could even cause serious strains in Nato (especially when the Baltic states started to bay for iron-tight security guarantees). Moreover, Putin would have a free hand to turn his attention to other land-grab projects in Central Asia and perhaps even Belarus.

Why he wouldn’t: The Russian people themselves appear to be against a full invasion of Ukraine, although for the Kremlin propagandists and opinion managers this is not a huge problem. A bigger problem is the reaction of the West, which would definitely be against it. Putin could probably count on dithering and hot air from the EU in the face of a full invasion of Ukraine, but the U.S. reaction would be much firmer and more dangerous. The new state of Western Ukraine would de facto become another U.S. ally on the borders of “Russian land,” which would no doubt be well supplied with enough weapons to ward off further Russian expansion. Western Ukraine could even opt to conduct a partisan war in an attempt to regain its lost territory (as it would be entitled to do under international law.) The situation in the conquered territories could end up being as much of a mess as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are now, except over a vastly broader area. Russian soldiers would regularly return to the Motherland in “200’ convoys.

3) After waiting for a bit for the media frenzy to die down and the West to get distracted by some other big news, continue support for insurgency, with more regular Russian troops and military equipment, beat back Kyiv’s advance, move in a long-prepared peace-keeping force (which seems to have been part of the original plan). Attempt to gain control of most of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Effect: Kyiv will probably be forced to accept a ceasefire on terms better for Russia and the insurgents. Ukraine will lose control of most of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, which will merge and turn into a quasi-statelet on the lines of Transdniestria or Abkhazia. A long-term “frozen conflict” will be up and running, causing headaches for Kyiv and acting as a useful lever of influence for Russia.

Why he’d do it: This would be the repeat of a tried-and-tested plan for the Kremlin, which has worked well for the Russians in Moldova and Georgia. Ukraine will be weakened over the long-term, Crimea will be safe, and eventually it will be back to business as usual with the West. It would be nothing but a win for the Kremlin, and Putin personally. To deal with the immediate problem of the airliner atrocity, Russia will try to obfuscate the investigation into the airliner atrocity in every way it can, float absurd conspiracy theories, and lay a smokescreen so thick that the shooting down of MH17 becomes a favorite topic of conspiracy theorists for decades to come.

Why he wouldn’t: There’s no certainty the media frenzy will die down, as more and more evidence of direct Russian involvement in the shooting down of MH17 comes to light. While there’s no danger of Putin himself being sent to The Hague, captured insurgents or Russians being put on trial in the International Court would not look good for Russia, and by extension, Putin himself, and he doesn’t want anything to undermine his support at home.

Option 3 is probably the one Putin would go for. That’s why it’s absolutely vital for the West to keep up the pressure on Russia, push for a proper investigation into the shooting down of MH17, with the trial (even in absentia) of those responsible for firing the missile, and realistic threats of painful sanctions if the Russians don’t cooperate – at the very least the Mistral helicopter carrier deal with France should be scrapped. Determined Western pressure could force Putin to take option 1, which would be the best outcome for Ukraine and the rest of the world, and, ultimately, the best for Russia.

Putin is on the hook now. The West must not allow him to wriggle off it.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Russia tried to invade Ukraine last weekend, and we didn't even notice

The fog of war is notorious for obscuring our view of military operations, but it must be rare in the annals of human conflict for a nuclear-armed superpower to attempt to invade a large European country without anyone apparently noticing.

But that's apparently what happened on the night of July 12-13, if the Ukrainian authorities are to be believed (and they are generally a rather more reliable source than their counterparts in Moscow.)

According to Kyiv, a large column of Russian armor (estimates ranging from 100 to 200 vehicles) was halted by Ukrainian air strikes as it attempted to cross from Russia into Ukraine's Luhansk oblast, the southern portion of which is still under the control of the Russian-led insurgent forces. The Ukrainian authorities say part of the column was destroyed, and the rest abandoned its attempt to enter Ukraine. Moreover, the Ukrainian armed forces said that this column was just one of several Russian attack groups that were moving on Ukraine, openly, under the Russian flag. It added that Ukrainian forces were attacked from Russian territory by artillery and Grad multiple rocket launchers. The Russian actions were deemed by the Ukrainian military as a military invasion of the territory of Ukraine.

Yet there has been not a peep about this dramatic escalation of the war in Ukraine in the Western media, probably because of the difficulty of independently verifying such reports, given the complex, confused, and frankly dangerous situation in eastern Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there had been warning signs for a number of days prior to this incident that the Russians might be planning an invasion.

British-Ukrainian journalist Askold Krushelnysky reported on July 9 in an article entitled "A Dreadful Inexorability" in the National Review Online that "serious sources" in the Russian government had informed him that Russian President Vladimir Putin was planning a peacekeeping intervention in Ukraine in "the next few days." We might have witnessed (or rather failed to witness) precisely that over the weekend, though luckily the attempt appears to have been thwarted by Ukraine's military. Krushelnysky also claimed that senior Russian diplomats had informed the German government that Russia would press on with its plans to intervene in Ukraine even if the EU did finally decide to impose its third wave of sanctions. In addition, Krushelnysky said Russian military vehicles with peacekeeping markings have been stationed close to Russia's border with Ukraine, and that MPs from Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, have been ordered to stay in the vicinity of Moscow.

These claims have been backed up by Dmitry Tymchuk, of the Information Resistance group in Ukraine, who has connections with the Ukrainian military and who had proved to be a reasonably reliable source in the past. Tymchuk, in a posting made on the morning of July 14, said that Ukraine was effectively being invaded by Russia. He also warned that he had it from several sources that Russian special forces were planning to insert themselves in the insurgency zone in Ukraine on July 15, although the Ukrainian defense authorities said they had no information confirming this.

Together with the multiple reports of Russian armored columns with peacekeeping markings, and the recent well-documented incidents of Russian tanks, APCs and artillery pieces being allowed through the border by Russia into the insurgency zone in Ukraine, this appears to be the continuation of Putin's "frog-in-a-pot" strategy of gradually turning up the heat on the hapless and unwary frog (Ukraine), until it is cooked (invaded, dismembered).

And over the weekend we may have seen Putin give another tweak to the burner – Russia claimed that Ukraine had shelled a town across the border in Russia itself, killing a man and seriously injuring two women. Ukraine denied being responsible, and claimed that the Russian-led insurgents had engineered the incident themselves to provide justification for Russia to stage an open invasion.

Given the covert nature of Russia's military operations against Ukraine, and the previously mentioned difficulty of establishing the truth or falsehood of claimed incidents in the war zone, it's impossible to say for certain who was responsible for shelling Russian territory. But as Ukrainian forces close in on the insurgents' strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk, it's highly probable that we will hear of more such incidents - any of which, the Ukrainian authorities worry, could be used by Moscow as the pretext for an open invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

It's to be hoped that in the future, with the benefit of hindsight, Ukraine and the rest of the world will not ruefully have to admit that "all the signs were there – we should have seen it coming, but we didn't notice."

Thursday, 3 July 2014

How to Win the War

There is no weapon of war that is not vulnerable to another type of weapon: artillery, while devastating against mass concentrations of infantry, is vulnerable to attack from the air. Tanks and armor, which can punch through a front and encircle enemy forces quickly, can still be destroyed by a single soldier armed with a modern anti-tank weapon. Aircraft, which can engage a range of targets on the ground and in the air, can themselves come under fire from enemy fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, or, again, a single soldier equipped with a portable anti-aircraft missile system.

Entire armies too have their vulnerabilities: the German army was unprepared for the Russian climate. The English at Bannockburn were defeated by their own arrogance and overconfidence, and the French army was defeated in a few weeks in 1940 by its own decrepit, incompetent and defeatist generals.

Moreover, all modern armies share a weakness that will cause their defeat if an enemy can exploit it: they are vulnerable to the disruption of their logistics and lines of supply. Without a constant flow of ammunition, food, weapons, equipment and reinforcements, any conventional fighting force will soon grind to a halt. Even if command and control – another prime target for disruption by an enemy – are still fully functional, there is not much a soldier who has no bullets for his gun can do but surrender, no matter what his orders are, once he is encircled by an enemy who has an ample supply of ammunition.

Perhaps the most famous example of the failure to achieve such an encirclement in the history of modern warfare occurred in June 1940 in northern France and Belgium. The Panzer divisions of Nazi Germany punched through the allied (at that time Britain and France) lines in the hilly and forested Ardennes region, which the allies had wrongly thought impassible to a large armored force, and swept headlong west and then north to cut off the French and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The allies, who had expected the Germans to take their traditional invasion route through Flanders, moved forward, as according to their plans and expectations, to meet a more conventional and slow moving force (Army Goup B under Colonel-General Fedor von Bock), which was advancing through the Low Countries and was intended by the Germans to draw the allies forward into a pocket that would be closed by the Panzer divisions of Army Group A, commanded by Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, which was already racing around the allies' rear. For a reason that puzzles historians to this day, Adolf Hitler gave the order (or rather confirmed an order given by Rundstedt) to halt the advance of his Panzers at this crucial time (perhaps wanting to give them time to rest and refit before turning south to attack the heart of France, or perhaps to give Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, the chance of glory in destroying the allied armies from the air). This gave the British the chance to evacuate the bulk of the BEF (almost 340,000 soldiers) from the port and beaches of Dunkirk, although 35,000 French who were left behind guarding the British retreat were captured. Had the BEF been encircled and trapped in France, the British would have faced a disaster, with no army left from which to rebuild, and Churchill would have been forced to come to terms with Nazi Germany. If that had happened, the world would be a very much different place today.

Looking at a map of the present conflict zone in eastern Ukraine, the rebel forces, as the Allies did in 1940, appear ripe for encirclement. Rebel-held territory extends like a fat thumb into the middle of the Donbas in southern Luhansk and northern Donetsk oblasts, with the base of the thumb being a short stretch of the Ukrainian border with Russia in the east. It is through this border that the rebels have been supplied, for several weeks now, with men and matériel – up to and including armored personnel carriers and even tanks.

The task facing the Ukrainian forces is thus to push along the border, north from Donetsk and south from Luhansk, to sever this thumb from the hand that sustains it. Once cut off from their supplies, the rebel force will start to wither. Ukrainian troops can continue to squeeze the pocket in which the rebels will have been trapped, forcing them to expend ammunition and lives, or they can simply wait for the force to collapse in on itself, and move in to mop up.

It's really that simple. The only conceivable reason that Ukraine has not yet done this is that it lacked a sufficient number of men. But Ukrainian forces are now becoming stronger, while the rebels are weakening. The task of closing the pocket along the border should be given to the regular army, while the volunteer battalions that have been raised since the beginning of the hostilities in the east should be given the job of holding the perimeter around the rebel territory, and perhaps advancing opportunistically as the rebels withdraw and consolidate (as they inevitably will have to as their supplies and manpower run low).

There is one important nuance: Ukraine should also impose a no-fly zone over the rebel-held zone. This might seem counter-intuitive, given the fact that the Ukrainians have access to air-power and the rebels do not, (and air-power has already granted a significant advantage to Ukrainian forces in several engagements), but once encircled the rebels will only have the option of being supplied by air. If Ukraine declares a no-fly zone, it will gain a number of other advantages in return. First, its weakened air forces will be less exposed to attack and losses, and Ukraine will have to maintain as strong an air force as possible given the threat of a more open attack by Russia. Second, if the air force is not operating over rebel areas, it will be harder for the rebels and Russia to claim attacks on civilian areas are being made by Ukraine from the air (some sort of monitoring of the no-fly zone, perhaps by the OSCE, will also be required). Third: any flights made by Russian military aircraft or even civilian helicopters intended to supply the rebels will be open to attack by Ukraine – if it's in the air, shoot it down. Ukraine's own forces in the area can be supplied by road and rail rather than by air.

The last, but perhaps the most important point is this: to achieve a military victory, the one thing Ukraine must not do is agree to another ceasefire. That would simply allow the rebels to regroup, resupply and reinforce. That would be a disastrous mistake, comparable to Rundstedt's in 1940, which ultimately led to defeat.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Putin's Frog-in-a-Pot War

There's an anecdote about a frog in a pot of water that goes like this: If you put a frog in a pot of hot or boiling water, it will immediately jump out (or die). But if you put it in a pot of cold water, and then gradually heat it, the frog won't notice the change in temperature until it's cooked.

I'm not sure if that's actually true or not, but it's a useful metaphor for the type of warfare Russian President Vladimir Putin has now unleashed on Ukraine. The idea is that people tend not to notice very gradual change, and if the process is carefully managed, people can be taken from one state of affairs to another, quite different one, without them even noticing exactly how or when they got there.

Ukraine is now at war. Part of its territory has already been annexed. Its soldiers are being killed by foreign fighters, armed and equipped from abroad, and sent to the country to seize key administrative buildings, military facilities, and even entire, strategically placed towns. Ukraine has lost control of its eastern border, and foreign tanks and troops are roaming one of its eastern provinces. All this has happened in the last four months.

But so gradual has this change in the state of affairs in Ukraine, that there are some who would not even recognize that Ukraine is, in fact, at war with Russia. It's even difficult to say when this war broke out: was it with the annexation of Crimea, or with the appearance of the "little green men" in the peninsula? Was it, as some believe, when Russian special forces were allegedly sent to steady the Yanukovych regime as it was rocked by public protests, and activists began to be abducted, tortured and killed by men speaking "chistiy" (or Russian-accented) Russian?

What we can say is that things have definitely been going badly for Ukraine since late February, and things are still going from bad to worse. Few would have thought, in those dreadful days after the ouster of Yanukovych, that Ukraine would soon lose Crimea to Russia - but it did. Then there were the anxious last two weeks of March, when it seemed that mainland Ukraine might be invaded. Then in mid April the "little green men" turned up in the Donbas, and buildings started to be seized, and the hitherto unremarkable town of Sloviansk became the center of a pro-Russian rebellion, and a humiliating thorn in the side of the weak and disorganized Ukrainian armed forces. Abductions and killings, of journalists and activists, became commonplace. We learned the names of some of the Russian mercenaries behind the seizure of parts of the Donbas. Then a battalion of Chechen fighters appeared, and tried to take over Donetsk airport. The bodies of Russian mercenaries began to be sent back to Russia openly. And now tanks, stolen from Ukrainian bases in occupied Crimea, are being openly driven around towns in the east.

This evolution of circumstances, this gradual turning up of the heat, did not happen naturally – every major event, from the theft of Crimea to the deployment of Chechen fighters and tanks in the Donbas, has been carefully, artificially crafted and managed by Russia. Putin, an old KGB colonel, is conducting this war with lies, propaganda and subterfuge, and is very carefully and gradually raising the temperature for Ukraine. Little by little he adds new outrages, or mixes in a new ingredient ("little green men", Chechens, tanks), to the pot of war in which he is stewing his neighbor. Sometimes he turns one burner down at little – perhaps a small redeployment of troops from the border – while tweaking up another slightly - say by threatening to cut off gas supplies. He calls for peace talks and for Kyiv to stop its anti-terrorist operation in the east, while at the same time letting more and more armed men cross the Russian border into Ukraine. But at all times he is gradually raising the temperature of the conflict.

Putin has proved difficult to predict, but perhaps, given what we have seen of his tactics in the last few months, we can now make a cautious prediction: he will continue to conduct this new type of war, his Frog-in-a-Pot war, until he achieves his aims, or until he is stopped.

Putin has himself alluded to what these aims might be: the dismemberment of Ukraine and the establishment of a new, Kremlin vassal state on the territory of Ukraine's south and east, which he refers to as Novorossiya. He thinks in terms of maps, and it irks him to see Transdnistria (Moscow's vassal state in Moldova) and his newly conquered Crimea cut off from Mother Russia. The solution to him is to take a swathe of Ukraine's south and east, linking all his isolated possessions (and that goes for Kaliningrad as well: Latvia, Belarus, beware!).

So there probably won't be an all-out attack and invasion of Ukraine by Russia – a swift, decisive sweep into enemy territory of the type we have seen in conflicts past. Instead, the situation in Ukraine will slowly deteriorate, until one day Kyiv will wake up to the realization that it has lost control of half of its territory, perhaps without even a single major battle being fought.

However, that's assuming everything goes Putin's way, and the frog doesn't manage to escape being cooked.

Putin's plans can be foiled if Ukraine can get his hands off the burners. That means, first of all, securing the border. Although some progress is reported to have been made, Ukraine has yet to prove that it has the strength to establish firm control over its frontier with Russia. But the border must be closed, and kept closed, to stop weapons and men from Russia getting into Ukraine to cause more and worse havoc. The anti-terrorist operation must not be stopped, no matter how Moscow protests. If there is any halt, Russia will simply use the opportunity to consolidate its position in the Donbas before starting to make mischief anew.

Next, Ukraine must continue to press for tough sanctions from the West against Russia – sanctions that don't just have teeth, but sanctions with six-inch razor-edged fangs that can slice and rip into Russia's exposed and vulnerable financial system, and its flabby industry, doing them some serious, painful injury. Wars cost money to prosecute, and the less of it available to Russia the better.

At the same time, Ukraine must work to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, and make sure it pays a fair price for the reduced amount it will still have to buy in the near term. For that, it will need firmer backing from the countries that consume 50% of Russia's gas exports to the EU (50% of which is delivered through Ukrainian transit pipelines) – Italy and Germany.

Russia's unfair actions in its undeclared trade war with Ukraine, which has already been going on for nearly a year, must be referred to the WTO, and trade sanctions applied and enforced by that organization.

On the diplomatic front, Ukraine must do everything it can to highlight Russia's international isolation from the civilized world and its disgraceful position as the leader of a motley pack of rogue states. Russia must pay a diplomatic price in the United Nations for its aggression. Little has been achieved on this front since the General Assembly vote condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea, and that was in March.

The black propaganda campaign waged by Russia against Ukraine must be more strenuously opposed. All too often, ridiculous and outrageous lies spewed by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media end up being parroted by "useful idiot" leftist commentators in the Western media, distorting Western perceptions of what is actually happening in Ukraine. Moscow has an army of Internet trolls dedicated to bending Western public opinion in the direction it wants. Ukraine has to counter this with its own army of troll slayers. Public initiatives such as are doing great work, but more needs to be done at the government level in Ukraine to counter the falsehoods emanating from the Russian media.

All of the above, and more, have to be done to douse Russia's smoldering aggression, and stop the frog getting cooked. In future, for the frog to escape the pot once and for all (meaning ensuring Russia can never again threaten Ukraine's very existence as a state), a whole set of other measures will need to be taken, such as rebuilding and reequipping Ukraine's army, integrating the country's economy with that of the European Union, and healing the raw wounds Putin has torn in Ukrainian society by artificially fostering divisions and mistrust between east and west.

But before all that, Ukraine first has to recognize that it is indeed a frog in a pot, and that the heat is rising.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Ukraine Is Not Just A Country Now – It’s An Idea

Something extraordinary happened in the frigid streets of Kyiv during the last winter. Amid the cracked cobblestones and the snow-packed bags of the barricades, between the lines of police and protesters, a national idea began to crystallize.

That idea was soon articulated in the Maidan slogan “Ukraina – tse Yevropa.” The grammar of this phrase is telling. It does not mean “Ukraine is part of Europe” but “Ukraine IS Europe.” It is the idea that Ukraine not only aspires to the principles that the EU is supposed to espouse – democracy, the rule of law, fairness and equality – but that after a generation of independence, these principles (which indeed have long been understood and to some extent practiced in the past in Ukraine) have now been sufficiently inculcated in Ukrainian society for the country to finally shrug off the legacy of Soviet-style government, and take its rightful place in the ranks of “normal” European countries. It is the idea that Ukraine itself embodies “Europeanness.”

It is a powerful idea, and so, of course, a threatening one to those who do not share it. Within Ukraine, it meets most resistance from the people of the east, many of whom still yearn for the stability of the Soviet era. Further to the east, in Russia, with its “managed democracy,” the idea is an anathema. One of the core elements of this idea, the principle of the Maidan – that any people have it within their power, without help from outside, to overthrow an autocratic regime - is a very menacing one for those who love, and live by, authoritarianism. That is why the Maidan movement is vilified in Moscow, and the Kyiv government is branded fascist – the most frightful mark Moscow can brand a foe with, as the Russian psyche still bears severe scars from the experience of its “Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany.

Even in the West, there are some who also quibble at the idea of Ukraine becoming a fully-fledged European state. Stuck with 19th and 20th century geopolitical memes that insist that Ukraine was, is, and will forever be a buffer state between Europe proper and Russia, they want to embrace Ukraine’s European aspirations but at the same time keep the country at arm’s length, fearing the Kremlin’s anger at interference in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Such fears are overblown. In reality, Ukraine need be no more of a buffer state than is Finland, or the Baltic countries – all of whom share a border with Russia. Of course, Ukraine can never escape its geography, but it can escape its history. It will always be neighbors with Russia, but it need not in future be in its thrall, as it has been in centuries past. Proof of this can be seen in the painful but rapid cleansing process the Ukrainian body politic is currently undergoing. The criminal gang that ran the country from 2010 is on the run – the country’s fourth president will never be able to set foot in Kyiv again, or so it is to be hoped. His Party of Regions has been gutted, and its leaders in exile or in the sights of the prosecutor general. A new, Western-oriented president has been elected with a convincing mandate. Ukraine, in the space of just six months, has greatly changed.

There is only one thing now that can stop Ukraine shedding its old Soviet skin and emerging as a European  state – the Moscow-backed insurgency in the east. But all is far from lost on that front. While it is true that the country’s easternmost oblasts are currently wracked with lawlessness and violence, Kyiv has managed to contain the separatists, preventing the spread of instability to other vulnerable regions, and even managing to turn back the secessionist tide in Kharkiv oblast. The anti-terrorist operation, despite some setbacks and a dreadful cost in lives, is gaining momentum and winning back ground. If control of the borders in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts can be restored, the insurgents will be surrounded, and their rebellion slowly strangled.

But after winning back the land in the east, Kyiv will then have to win back the minds of the people in the east, which have been deliberately and systematically poisoned against it. To do that will require those in the eastern regions to become properly acquainted with the national idea that has formed in the rest of Ukraine.

This need not be as hard as it might sound. Whenever the people of the east are asked whether they want to remain as part of Ukraine, the majority say “yes” (this was even the case in Crimea.) They are as sick of the corruption, the money-politics, the stagnation and the despair that has plagued Ukraine since independence as everyone else in the county is. It’s just that to cure it, they looked to the past, to the Soviet system, rather than to the future, to Europe. It will take time to turn them around, but it can be done.

So long after the last shots are fired in the Donbas insurgency, Ukraine will still be battling away to win back the hearts and minds of its eastern population. It will need its new national idea to bind its wounds and draw out the venom pumped into it by Russia. It will need the European Union to nurture the country’s Europeanness with financial and political support. Brussels must provide this, not just because the fractious EU itself also needs Ukraine’s national idea to maintain its own unity, but simply because now Ukraine IS Europe: it is an idea, and as the Ukrainians have shown, it is an idea that people will fight for.